It is evident both from clinical experience and laboratory research that our bodies have an incredible ability to renew themselves if we create the conditions for optimal health. In many ways, the fact that as a species we fare so well in spite of a variety of man-made environmental toxicities is a testament to this recuperative ability. However, it was always assumed that our brains, as if somehow completely isolated from our bodies, have no ability to repair themselves after injury. To take it a step further, it was for many years a long-accepted truth that our 86-or-so billion neurons (brain cells) have no ability to change based on the way we experience the world. Luckily, neither of these facts is true and this “doctrine of the unchanging brain” is slowly becoming extinct.
The key though, when it comes to changing your brain, is that you are genuinely interested in and committed to the activity in question.
Though still in its relative infancy, research in the emerging field of neuroplasticity is evolving to prove unequivocally that as we change how we interact with the world at large, we can indeed change our brains. This new-world truth is proving to have startling implications from birth until old age. No longer are developmentally delayed children and their families automatically
doomed (with exception, of course) to miss out on the joys of a fulfilled life. Likewise, elderly individuals with early stage dementia may have the hope of adding healthy functional years beyond what was previously imagined. From autism to Alzheimer’s, practitioners on the frontiers of science are changing our perception of what is possible.
Research on the effects of basic skills
Some examples of functional (our ability to see the world differently and act upon those changes) and structural (actual changes to the size and shape of our brains) improvements from recent research:
1. London taxi drivers (who need to memorize extensive street networks) have an enlarged posterior hippocampus which continues to grow with additional years of experience behind the wheel. The hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory formation and is the region most impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.[i]
2. Learning to juggle over three months adds brain cells (increased gray matter) to the area of the brain associated with integrating vision and motion.[ii]
3. Pianists, compared to non-pianists, have stronger connections of white matter in the corpus callosum (the part of the brain that allows our left and right brain to communicate).[iii]
4. Three months of study improved the size and function of several brain regions in medical students.[iv]
5. 40 hours of playing golf in 40-60 year olds increased the amount of gray matter in those individuals.[v]
6. Confirming the benefits of exercise, a 6-month cardiovascular training program improved brain volume in older adults.[vi]
While all of these studies were done on “healthy adults”, the implications are clear: as we learn new things, we can grow our brains and help them evolve to take on more complex tasks. The key though, when it comes to changing your brain, is that you are genuinely interested in and committed to the activity in question. Simply “going through the motions” is not enough for significant change. For this reason, the best recommendation is to seek out activities which are equal parts challenging and enjoyable. The brain is a sensory organ, so the best way to exercise it is to use it fully every day. This means taking every opportunity to explore and engage with the world around you.
So here are a few practical tips to optimize your chances of healthy brain function long into your golden years:
1. Learn new things
: The old adage that “you learn something new every day” should be less cliché and more rule to live by. Hobbies and activities which are grounded in genuine interest literally make us smarter. The best activities are ones that integrate thought, creativity, planning, and movement. So take a dance class, learn a new sport, or express yourself through art.
2. Schedule fun!
All work and no play really does make us dull (mentally). It’s easy to get caught up in the details of daily life, and the most reliable way to make sure you don’t get lost in the monotony is to carve out opportunities for joy. Research shows
that adults who “play” fare better across many parameters.
3. Reflect on your day:
Journaling or some other form of regular introspective though affords us an opportunity to assess whether our actions truly align with our values.Re-aligning ourselves to those values keeps us on track for greater personal and mental growth.
4. Train your brain:
We now have websites and apps dedicated to improving cognitive function that are backed by years of research on neuroplasticity. A few popular ones are BrainHQ
, and the best part is that in addition to being effective, they’re fun!
5. Quiet your mind:
Meditation improves cognitive function, and any opportunity to be fully present within our minds and bodies is one we should take. 20 minutes twice per day is ideal.
6. Get adequate sleep:
Poor quality or insufficient quantity of sleep makes us susceptible to early mental decline. There are some quick and easy ways
to get more ZZZs. It’s important to learn what your body requires, but 7 to 8 hours is necessary for most people.
7. Diet and physical exercise:
What we eat and how much we move play a central role in our mental function. Increased intake of fruits and veggies (especially deeply colored ones like dark leafy greens), healthy fats (especially omega 3 fatty acids), and lean sources of protein are necessary. Everyone has unique needs, and this topic will be addressed in greater depth in a future article. Until then, find a Naturopathic Physician near you
to formulate an individualized comprehensive brain wellness plan.
Maguire, E. A. et al. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97, 4398–4403.
Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U. and May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311–312.
Bengtsson, S. L., Nagy, Z., Skare, S., Forsman, L., Forssberg, H. and Ullen, F. (2005). Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 1148–1150.
Draganski, B. et al. (2006). Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 26, 6314–6317.
Bezzola, L., Merillat, S., Gaser, C. and Jancke, L. (2011). Training-induced neural plasticity in golf novices. Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 12444–12448.
Colcombe, S. J. et al. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 61, 1166–1170.